Tag Archives: Jenny Slate

Missed Connections

Landline

by Hope Madden

Jenny Slate is the perfect mix of raunchy and sweet to anchor an indie dramedy. Co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre tested that theory in 2014 with the character study and edgy rom/com Obvious Child.

Following on those proven results, Robespierre re-tests her theory with the 1995 family saga Landline.

Slate plays Dana, the older, almost-married sister in an upscale Manhattan family. But she and her ever-since-college beau Ben (Jay Duplass) are maybe not everything Dana hoped they’d be.

Her own entanglements with infidelity happen to exactly coincide with a discovery younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) makes of their father’s (John Turturro) erotic poetry, written for someone who is definitely not their mother (Edie Falco).

Things begin to fall apart. Ali’s lived-in resentment toward her overbearing mother is tested and turned instead toward her sweet, laid back father. Meanwhile Dana embraces recklessness and begins hanging out with her boundary-pushing teenage sister, drinking during the day and sneaking away for clandestine sexual encounters with Nate (pitch-perfect Finn Wittrock).

So, crumbling family dynamics in a well-to-do Manhattan family. Not exactly as edgy as a romantic comedy written around an abortion.

Still, between its loving nostalgia for the pre-cellphone days of the mid-Nineties and its truly game cast, Landline keeps you interested and entertained.

Falco and Turturro are unfortunately underused. Both are spectacular talents, and their well-worn relationship offers each the opportunity to create moments of sudden, honest, everyday heartbreak.

The characteristically effervescent Slate charms, and her off kilter chemistry with Quinn serves the film well. They’re irritated and protective, bitching and admiring all in the same breath. They often feel unsure of their own feelings toward each other, which reads as very authentic.

Quinn is the real heartbeat of the film. Equally vulnerable and mean, she’s less the cinematic equivalent of a conflicted adolescent than she is a conflicted adolescent, and the film takes on a sharp focus whenever she’s onscreen.

Unfortunately, that’s not all the time, and Robespierre – writing again with Elisabeth Holm – loses focus too easily. Landline, for all its insightful moments and clever lines, feels a bit unwieldy and murky.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Girl with All the Gifts

Gifted

by Hope Madden

A pensive charmer tries to raise a child prodigy on his own. Gifted offers a premise as rife with possibilities as it is weighed down by likely cliché and melodrama, and it strangely meanders somewhere between the two.

Chris Evans attempts the gruff everyman with some success, playing Uncle Frank, guardian to math genius Mary (Mckenna Grace – very solid). Against the advice of his landlord and Mary’s bestie Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary as a first grader in a local public school.

There Mary wows her good natured teacher (Jenny Slate), and draws the attention of her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who’s been MIA since Mary’s mother – another family genius – died when the girl was just a babe.

What’s the best way to care for a gifted child? This is the conundrum at the heart of the film. In rooting out the answer, writer Tom Flynn wisely keeps Mary at the center of the story. She’s an actual character, not a prop for evangelizing one course of action over another.

Luckily, Grace is up to the task, and her chemistry with Evans feels genuine enough to make you invest in their story.

Perhaps more important is Duncan, a formidable talent who elevates a tough role. She, too, shares a warm chemistry with Evans, and it’s that kind of unexpected character layering that helps Gifted transcend its overcooked family dramedy leanings.

On occasion, Gifted is Little Man Tate without the pathos. At other times, it’s Good Will Hunting for first graders.

Strong performances help the film navigate sentimental trappings, but Flynn’s script veers off in too many underdeveloped and downright needless directions, and director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) can’t find a tone.

Gifted is warm without being too sweet. Though it knows the answer to the question it’s asking, the film resists oversimplification and never stoops to pitting one-dimensional characters against each other in service of a sermon.

Though the final decision about what’s best for Mary is really never in doubt, in getting to that revelation, the film acknowledges nuance in the choice.

That’s not to say Gifted avoids cliché altogether, or that it embraces understatement. It does not – on either count. But it does present an intriguing dilemma, populates its story with thoughtful, almost realistic characters, and refuses to condescend to its audience or its characters.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Dogs and Cats, Living Together… Mild Hysteria

The Secret Life of Pets

by Matt Weiner

For a madcap family movie, The Secret Life of Pets raises some deeply disturbing questions. How much libido could fuel a romantic subplot when the lovers have been neutered? Why does “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” cue up during a drive into Manhattan? And exactly where is the autonomic system located on a sausage?

Alas, The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me franchise veterans), answers none of these questions. Instead, the movie offers up a diverting animated comedy with plenty of action but little cohesion or earned emotion to back it up.

The plot, as much as it exists other than to fling a Bronx Zoo’s worth of animals across New York City set pieces, hints at a Toy Story-light conflict between earnest terrier Max (Louis C.K.) and the newly adopted Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a gruff Newfoundland with a sad past.

It’s fitting that Duke, a shaggy dog, gets the action going. Once he and Max find themselves captured by the only two animal control officers in a city of 8 million, the sole remaining tension is whether Max and Duke will learn to get along before or after a successful rescue effort, as led by Gidget the tougher-than-she-looks Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) and Chloe, a scene-stealing cat (Lake Bell).

The Secret Life of Pets features inspired physical comedy, in a Buster-Keaton-meets-future-theme-park-ride kind of way that turned the Minions into cash cows. But it’s Pixar without the pathos: the movie never misses a chance to ignore any avenue for genuine emotion, whether it’s Duke learning what happened to his former owner or the streetwise villain Snowball (Kevin Hart, playing to the back row) hinting at the dark desires that animals really harbor toward their fickle owners.

It’s the single-note drone of the movie’s action that makes the glimpses of what might have been all the more remarkable. An extended fantasy sequence in a Brooklyn sausage factory takes place for no reason other than setting up a song-and-dance number that’s a drugged-out tribute to edible body horror, complete with dancing hot dogs made rapturous by their imminent consumption. None of this advances the plot in any way, but it’s a rare delight in a movie mostly content to coast.

In the end, predators and prey make amends, Max and Duke are ready for a sequel and a reliable supporting cast have made their case for a spinoff. Not bad for a day’s work in New York. But the real secret is that our pets are very much like their human counterparts: they share our likes and dislikes, our strengths and our flaws, and — most of all — our willingness to settle for just good enough.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

Pro-Honesty

 

Obvious Child

by George Wolf

 

Obvious Child is at times funny, crude, poignant, sad and awkward- kinda like life. And through it all, it is a film that feels honest – so much so that it’s hard to believe the lead actor didn’t also write the screenplay.

Writer/director Gillian Robespierre expands her 2009 short film and again casts Jenny Slate as Donna, a twenty-something bookstore clerk who does standup comedy by night. After her boyfriend takes her to dumpsville, Donna rebounds by hooking up with preppy Max (Jake Lacy)…only to find herself knocked up by preppy Max.

To paint this film as the “abortion rom-com” is both understandable and unfair. While the comedic approach it takes to such a polarizing issue all but guarantees a controversial label, Obvious Child is far from single-minded.

Robespierre brings a refreshingly casual frankness to a collection of life snapshots, all echoing with authenticity. There’s no pretense or judgement, and only a hint of the self-absorption that often plagues similar dramadies (yes, Girls).

And the neurotic thread running through it all is the strange compulsion to unburden the soul for perfect strangers in a comedy club.

Slate (Kroll Show/Parks and Recreation/SNL) is letter-perfect as a woman whose brutally personal comedy routines seem to be her only outlet for confronting anything personal in her life. The situation with Max becomes her wake-up call.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Robespierre transforms a 23 minute short film into a nearly 90 minute feature without tacking on superfluous filler. It all works, from Donna’s relationship with her parents (Polly Draper, Richard Kind) to the support from her loyal best friend (Gaby Hoffman).

Obvious Child delights in exploring roads that are rarely traveled in romantic comedies – but don’t expect a parody. As Jimmy Buffett has often said about his song Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw), this is a love story…from a different point of view.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars